Volume 31, Number 3

Trial & Error

Jamie Nelson says our mothers are so different. Smugly says 
that his mother was very intelligent. 
          And accomplished. 
She’s dead and it seems rude to question him. Or punch him 
in the face. So, what does that make mine, 
          I want to ask him. 
It’s like he knows the last page is where my mother always 
starts, flipping backwards through magazines/books/
          Safeway flyers. 
I don’t tell him she pores over words, unseeing, looking for 
pictures because pictures she can understand. Holding the book
          upside down, 
licking her finger and turning the pages so carefully. 
I don’t tell him she uses the telephone book to weigh down 
          the mass 
that will become paneer. I don’t tell him she rips pages from the Sears 
catalogue to line the kitchen cupboard where she keeps the 
          mustard oil
and ghee. I want to tell him that she’s learned things big things and 
small things so many things by tracing them with her fingers, by 
          silently watching, 
by committing them to memory. Committing everything to memory 
not understanding that someday that will fail. She learned to cook by 
          trial and error. 
She learned to sew by trial and error. She learned how to live in a new 
country thousands of miles away by trial and error. She skims 
          people’s faces 
and knows where the quarter goes into the shopping cart and looks 
hard at the price tags for produce, so many tags, an endless 
          matching game. 
She can’t read or write or drive but she knows where she’s going and 
where she’s come from because she memorizes lamp posts and 
          bus stops 
and corner stores and church steeples. She puts an X on the line 
and it wobbles off the page because she never learned how 
          to hold a pen 
or a pencil or a crayon. She’s proud of her X. A letter to replace her inky 
thumbprint. She was the gendered outsider, chewing on bricks
          outside the school walls.
Now, a whole letter is hers.

—Moni Brar